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Basic Leather Colour

This may seem a very basic question, but I cannot find an answer. Rifle leather gear was black, but was it coloured on all four sides, (vat dyed),just the front and edges, or just the front?

I ask because nice vat dyed black leather is readily available. A very good Sutler in the US dyes his leather on one side only then cuts out and assembles the equipment. Then I have seen items that were dyed on three sides available other places. It seems to me alot of work to do that while leaving the rear faces natural.

What is the common practices amoung reenactors? And is it possible to get a definitive answer for extant pieces? Any help greatly appreciated.

I can't speak  exactly for the surviving rifle equipment, as the  95th  people  on here will have seen much more  original items specific to  the regiment than me,  but from my experience and having examined dozens  of originals,  both side  dyes and  single surface dyes are equally as common.

Vat dyeing (through dyed) tends to be a more  common  attribute  of modern (post 1860) leather as  chemical  dyes become cheaper and supplanted  vegetable dyes, and hence  became quicker to process,  especially with  drum processing in quantity.

Vegetable dyes,  unlike chemical dyes,  required a mordant  or fixative to  hold them and  prevent leaching,  so  tended to  be  painted on,  either both  or one surface.   A look through the pictures  of peaks  on the various caps will  show that the dyes are surface with the brown core rubbing through  on them with age.

Edges are  dyed in the finishing,after cutting,  either black  wax  or ink/dye and were part  of the finishing  process rather than leaving  rough  edges or  fibre dust  on clothing.   Plus  it hardens and strengthens the edge.

Just to  confuse matters,  not all  leather was  grain (top  surface) dyed either, often the  flesh was  heavily black  waxed as the outer finish as  it absorbed better and becomes waterproofed and held more than the grain.  

So  the answer,  from my perspective,  is both,  but through dyes (in the modern  sense) are actually far less common.

PS.  Oak  tanning tends to  give a darker shade  of leather than modern  veg tanning and  age tends to  darken  leather (especially  over 200 years) so  distictions are  harder to  notice today.

A quick  flick  through Pierre Turner shows  heavy leather for the most  part  is  dyed on both sides,  while  thinner  leathers tend towards one side dyes.

Again,  most  officer's equipment tends to  be  better quality leather with both sides finished ,and a great deal pre 1900 is surface dye,   but  it's not a hard rule either.

I've not handled a huge amount of original Napoleonic leatherwork although I think that Ben has and can give a more informed answer. I have seen and handled a lot of Victorian OR's leatherwork and I don't ever remember seeing an item of equipment stained or dyed both sides. It's nearly always applied exactly where it shows, on the surface and edges. This sometimes even extends to not bothering to apply the coating to bits of strapping that go under other items. I'm not a Rifleman but if I was and I was re-creating Rifle leatherwork I would go for surface and edges only.

The only exception being the water bottle strap issued by the Board of Ordinance which I would leave in it's natural colour which gradually darkens from tan to dark brown in vegetable cured leather. The reason for that is that the BO issued to all units of the army and I personally don't believe that they would bother to produce black straps especially for Riflemen.

I do stress that these are only my opinions and that I'm not in any way speaking for the 2/95th.

Just  having a count through  of the  pouches  on the surviving  locations thread and  of the ones your able to  discern  I  would say  70% are  surface dyed  on one side and the few that may be dyed  on both are all  surface dyed.
Paul Durrant


You asked, "What is the common practices amoung reenactors...?"

From my experience, there is none. Don't work on the premise that all re-eanctors want to recreate 'as was'. Those wanting to recreate as close as possible the original article are, sadly, few and far between (please someone correct me if they feel I'm wrong). The rest are happy with cheap, modern, machine stitched Asian imports. (Bitter? Moi?)

Anyway, as far as dying leather goes and what was or wasn't, as far as I can tell, it's as The Neibelungen says.

Of the few bits of original accoutrements stuff I've viewed the only thing that I could safey say was none of it was through dyed. I've seen bits I can't work out which side was dyed, mainly, as The Neibelungen says, it's 200 yrs old and has been 'black-balled' to buggery!

At times, I suspect  a full hide was probably dyed on the grain side. However, in some cases the flesh side would need to be shown, say in making a pouch, and then this would be ball-blacked. This is were my inexperience and ignorance of leather comes in - sometimes I look at something and just can't figure out of it's blackening, dying or ageing.

Take this pouch of the Carmarthen Militia (below). The flaps of pouches were reversed - flesh side out - so that they could take the fatty waxing of blackening. The rest of the pouch would be grain side out. Except, the flap and the back panel were cut as one piece. So to get the flap flesh side out for blackening and the back panel grain side out, they would most often just slice the 'flap' section away and reverse the rest (the back panel) so it was grain side out.

So now, for the flap, your smooth, black dyed grainside is on the inside - and grain for the back panel it's on the outside.

Look inside the pouch in this pic. See where the black finishe. That's the line where it's cut across.

Here's an example of grain side dyed but brown flesh showing through proving it's not through dyed:

..and then someone once told me the blacking was all done in the tanning technique...

hey ho...

Hope some of this makes sense.

Basic Leather Colour

Many thanks to all for your informative answers to my "Rookie" questions. I especially appreciate the photos of original equipment all throughout this Forum. That and the collective knowledge gained (and readily shared!) clears up many unknowns for me. I wish I had joined this site years ago!
Paul Durrant

Harry, you're more than welcome. And we like what you call 'rookie' questions as It was those kind of questions that started this forum.

It's good for us to try and answer such questions because it gets us to dust off the cobwebs and keeps us on our toes. Also, we find, as our research progresses, that the answers often change or sometimes when we go back to check our statements we find things we overlooked the first time.

So keep 'em coming.


If you're experimenting with making your own gear, drop us a progress report to let folks see how it's going.

Other threads
Recreating the 95th pouch:

Buckles, make your own:

We also have lots more in our archive which we put over from time to time, so please don't hesitate to ask.

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